Robert Stickgold’s Dream Research: How Sleep Affects Perception

When it comes to dream research, a lot has happened since Freud published his work “The Interpretation of dreams”. Dr. Robert Stickgold, the Director of Harvard’s Center for Sleep and Cognition is, at the moment, conducting cutting-edge research concerning the dream world. The results of his studies show that sleep helps us to synthesize information and dreaming increases the ability to problem solve.


Sets of Words: Sleep Increases Recall

Robert Stickgold and his team did an experiment to see how sleep affects our perception of the world. First, they recorded a few lists of words. Each list centered on a certain theme and included words such as: nurse, hospital, health, ill, and stethoscope. Later, the researchers asked each participant if he or she had heard a particular word or not.

When the participants were asked if they had heard the word “doctor” a few hours later, half of them falsely remembered the word.

Participants were then divided into two groups: The first group was asked to recall the list of words just a few hours later. They did not have the opportunity to sleep or take a nap in the meantime. The second group was asked to return the following day and was required to sleep in the meantime.

The participants who were asked to remember the list the day after – and had slept in the meantime- remembered more words than the participants who were tested after a few hours, without sleeping. When we sleep, our mind gets rid unnecessary details and focuses on the central idea of what happened during the day. Further, the mind constructs its own key-words or key images. So sleeping and dreaming actually helps us synthesize and process information.


Sleep Helps us Make Sense of the Day

Additionally, Robert Stickgold’s experiment showed that people also wrote down words that were not in the list, nor were “gist words” (like “doctor”, for example). These extra words are called creative intrusions.

Participants who slept came up with many more creative intrusion words, which suggested that people had mixed and fused the various lists in their mind while sleeping and dreaming. So it is while we are asleep, that our mind tries to summarize our day and make sense out of it.

Sleep Helps Develop Insight

The third part of the experiment involved asking people to do some calculations that involved mathematics and had a hidden trick. This test was checking the development of insight. People who were trained in the morning did a bit better at solving the problem in the evening and about 25% managed to find the trick.

The results confirmed the importance of sleep in the ability to develop insight: In the group of people who slept over it, a staggering 2.5 times more people figured out the trick.


Navigating a Maze:
Dreaming Increases Your Ability to Solve Problems

The fourth test that Robert Stickgold’s group did was to train people to go through a maze in the morning. Participants were then asked to repeat the same maze again in the evening.

Participants were again divided into two groups: The first group was not allowed to nap or sleep in the meantime. The second group was allowed to take a 90-minute nap.

Of the participants allowed to nap, the ones who dreamed about the maze found the exit 10 times faster than they had in the morning! The ones who napped, but didn’t dream about the maze, found the exit one minute faster than in the morning. While the group who didn’t sleep at all found the exit one minute later than in the morning.

Robert Stickgold’s Experiments: Final Thoughts

The results of stickgold’s experiments show that we solve problems and practice waking-life situations while we dream. This could be the theory behind why more and more companies offer the opportunity for a half-hour nap to their employees. If you think that people who spend their night dreaming are lazy, think again!

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